The name Rosa Parks is synonymous with the civil rights movement in America, and the Montgomery bus boycott which was sparked after her arrest for refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger as was the law at the time. More recently, Rosa and her act of defiance were the focus of an episode of the popular Science Fiction program Doctor Who, introducing Rosa and her story to a new generation. The purpose of this article is to look at Rosa’s life and the full extent of her role in the American civil rights movement.
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The America Rosa Parks was born into was divided by racial segregation. This meant that facilities, opportunities, and services, such as transport, employment, education, medical services, housing and even food and drink could be refused to African Americans whilst white residents could use them. Signs were displayed telling African American residents where they could legally sit, walk, and eat. In 1896, the U.S. Plessy v. Ferguson saw the Supreme Court upheld segregation, as long as “separate but equal facilities were provided” although this was rarely met in practice. It was not until 1954, when Brown v. The Board of Education saw the doctrine unanimously overturned by the Supreme Court. The following years saw the courts continue to rule against racial segregation helping to bring an and to the Jim Crow laws.
Born Rosa Louise McCuley, on the 4th of February 1913, to James and Leona McCauley. When Rosa was just two years old her parents separated and her mother moved them to live with her parents, Rose and Sylvester Edwards on their farm in Pine Level, Alabama. Both Rose and Sylvester were former slaves and were strong advocates for racial equality. One story tells that her grandfather Sylvester, stood in front of their house holding a shotgun while Ku Klux Klan members marched down the street. Thus, from her early childhood, Rosa experienced both racial discrimination and activism for racial equality.
Education for Rosa, and other African American children at the time was difficult, the schools themselves were often underfunded and lacking in adequate supplies, furthermore, African-American students were forced to walk to their schoolhouse, while the city of Pine Level provided buses and built a new school building for white students. Rosa, herself, was taught to read by her mother at home before attending a segregated school in Pine level, the school was just one room and vastly under equipped. At the age of eleven, Rosa attended the city’s Industrial School for Girls in Montgomery, before attending a laboratory school for secondary education led by the Alabama State Teachers College for Negroes. However, when her mother and grandmother both fell ill Rosa moved home to care for them and never graduated. Rather than return to school, Rosa took a job at a shirt factory in Montgomery.
When she was nineteen Rosa met and married Raymond Parks. Raymond was a barber and an active member of The National Association of the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP). With his support of her Rosa earned her high school degree in 1933, and became actively involved in civil rights issues by joining the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP in 1943. Rosa served as the chapter’s youth leader as well as secretary to NAACP President Edgar Nixon until 1957.
The 1st of December 1955, would become a day that changed the course of Rosa’s life and American history. The Montgomery City Code required all public transportation to be segregated, drivers were required to provide separate but equal accommodations for white and black passengers by assigning seats and gave bus drivers the; “…powers of a police officer of the city while in actual charge of any bus for the purposes of carrying out the provisions” of said code. There was a line in the middle of the bus separating the seats available for white passengers at the front of the bus and those for African-American passengers at the back. When an African-American passenger wanted to use the bus they had to get on at the front to pay their fare and then get off, walk to the back door and re-board the bus. Whilst the Montgomery city ordinance did not specifically give drivers the right to demand a passenger move to give their seat to another passenger, the Montgomery bus drivers had become accustomed to moving the sign separating black and white passengers and asking black passengers give up their seats for white passengers. If their request was denied, they had the authority to refuse service and call the police to have the resisting passenger removed. When Rosa boarded the Cleveland Avenue bus that evening she took a seat in the first row designated for “coloured” passengers.
When Rosa boarded the bus home from work that evening, she could not have known history was about to be made. The bus soon filled up with passengers, and eventually the seats in the ‘whites’ section became full and passengers had to stand. Noticing this, the driver stopped the bus, and moved the sign separating the two sections back one row asking four African American passengers to give up their seat. Three passengers complied with the driver, but Rosa refused and remained in her seat. When the driver demanded to know why she would not move, Rosa is said to have replied, “I don’t think I should have to stand up”. At her refusal the driver called the police, who arrested her at the scene and charged her with a violation of Chapter 6, Section 11, of the Montgomery City Code. Later Rosa recalled that her refusal to move was not because she was physically tired, but rather tired of giving in.
Rosa was taken to police headquarters and released on bail later that night. When she, and her attorney Fred Grey arrived at the courthouse on the morning of her trial, they were met by a crowd of around 500 local supporters. The hearing only lasted half an hour, and Rosa having been found guilty of violating a local ordinance was fined $10, as well as a $4 court fee.
On the same night Rosa was arrested, the head of the local NAACP chapter Edgar Nixon began formally planning a boycott of Montgomery’s city buses. Ads were placed in local papers and leaflets distributed in African American neighbourhoods asking the African-American community to stay off the city buses. on the 5th of December, the day of Rosa’s trial. The NAACP encouraged people to either stay home, take a cab or walk to work. The same data, leaders from the African-American community gathered at the Mount Zion Church in Montgomery to discuss strategy and formed the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA). They decided that for their boycott to be successful strong leadership was needed, and elected Martin Luther King Jr, Edgar Nixon, and Ralph Abernathy as leaders. They believed Rosa’s case could prove to be an opportunity to create a real change, they were right. Many of the city’s buses were left empty as an estimated 40,000 African-American commuters living in the city at the time had opted to find other means of getting to work, with some walking as far as 20 miles to get to work. The boycott continued for several months, leaving dozens of buses idle and crippled the finances of the transit company. The Montgomery Bus Boycott as it would come to be known lasted for 381 days and ended with the Supreme Court ruling that segregation on public transit systems to be unconstitutional.
The boycott saw some segregationists retaliate with violence, churches were burned, with the homes of both Martin Luther King Jr.’s and Edgar Nixon were destroyed by bombings. Non violent means were also used to end the boycott, such as the insurance for the city taxi system used by African Americans being cancelled, and boycott participants being arrested for violating an antiquated law which prohibited boycotts. In response, members of the African-American community took legal action and in June 1956, the district court declared racial segregation laws, known as Jim Crow laws were unconstitutional. The city of Montgomery appealed the court’s decision, however, on the 13th of November 1956, the U.S. The Supreme Court upheld the lower court’s ruling. In the face of the transit company and downtown businesses suffering financial losses and the court’s ruling against them, the city of Montgomery had no choice but to end segregation on public buses, thus, ending the boycott on the 20th of December 1956.
Although Rosa became a symbol of the Civil Rights Movement, in the months after her arrest, Rosa and her husband suffered hardships, both lost their jobs and were unable to find other employment forcing them to leave Montgomery. Along with Rosa’s mother, they moved to Detroit, Michigan and made a new life for themselves. Rosa began working as a secretary and receptionist in U.S. Representative John Conyer’s congressional office and served on the board of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. In 1987, with the help of her longtime friend Elaine Eason Steele, Rosa founded the Rosa Parks and Raymond Parks Institute for Self-Development an organisation which runs “Pathways to Freedom” bus tours, introducing young people to important civil rights and Underground Railroad sites throughout the country. Throughout her lifetime, Rosa received many accolades including the highest award offered by the NAACP, the Spingarn Medal, and the Martin Luther King Jr. award. In 1996 President Bill Clinton awarded Rosa with the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the following year she was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal. Furthermore, TIME magazine named Rosa on its 1999, 20 Most Influential People of the 20th Century List.
Rosa died on the 24th of October 2005, in her Detroit apartment, she was 92 years old. After her death, Rosa was laid in honour in the Capitol Rotunda in Washington, D.C., where an estimated 50,000 people viewed her casket. She was laid to rest between her husband and mother at Detroit’s Woodlawn Cemetery, in the chapel’s mausoleum.
Rosa Parks was born into an unjust world, she faced hardship and being unfairly treated because of the colour of her skin, yet, she was a kind and determined woman who wanted to make the world a better place. Her story and the lessons it gives us may never be as relevant as they are today. Racism, homophobia, sexism and religious prejudice seem to be the rise as hate spreads across the world via social media, misinformation and political leaders with their own agenda, it sometimes feels like there is nothing we can do to make it better. Yet, as Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott showed, when people stand together against injustice change can be achieved.